Crunch Time in Pakistan
It’s crunch time in Pakistan. Resolving Pakistan’s financial crisis is likely to require newly appointed Prime Minister Imran Khan to not only accept an International Monetary Fund (IMF) straitjacket but tackle his and Pakistan’s convoluted relationship with militancy.
With the breeding ground for militancy built into the country’s DNA and Khan owing his electoral victory in part to the spoiler role played by militants in Pakistani elections, tackling militancy is a tall order. Add to that Khan’s ultra-conservative social attitudes as well as his abetting of militant concerns.
Khan, who was once dubbed Taliban Khan because of his support of the Afghan Taliban, advocacy for the opening in Pakistan of an official Taliban Pakistan office, allowing government funds to go to militant madrassas, and enabling Islamists to dictate the content of public school textbooks, is nonetheless likely to find that he has no choice.
To secure IMF support, Khan will have to avoid blacklisting by an international watchdog, the Financial Action Task Force (FATF), and ensure removal from the group’s grey list by not only reinforcing anti-money laundering and terrorism finance measures but also rigorously implementing them.
That would require both the acquiescence of Pakistan’s powerful military and a reversal of Khan’s publicly espoused positions. In many ways, Khan’s positions have been more in line with those of the military, including his assertion that militancy in Pakistan was the result of the United States ill-conceived war on terror rather than a history of support of militant proxies that goes back to Pakistan’s earliest days than he has often been willing to acknowledge.
“If terrorism is not indigenous to Pakistan, and merely imported, then it follows that no larger reckoning of the state’s and society’s relationship with religion can or should take place — a convenient conclusion for religious hardliners,” said South Asia scholar Ahsan I. Butt.
Juggling the demands of multi-lateral agencies and Pakistan’s reality is likely to trap Khan in a Catch-22 of centrifugal forces that include the roots of militancy enhanced by what Spanish sociologist Manuel Castells termed “the rise of the networked society.”
The appeal of the militants’ intolerance and supremacism, rooted in a literal interpretation of the Qur’an and the teachings of the Prophet Mohammed, is reinforced by advances in information technology and the proliferation of media that in Castells’ approach created “a world of uncontrolled, confusing change” that compelled people “to regroup around primary identities; religious, ethnic, territorial, (and) national.”
Khan’s harsh reality is nonetheless likely to be also shaped by Pakistan’s handling of men like Abdul Rehman al-Dakhil, a probable litmus test of the seriousness of its anti-terrorism measures.
An alleged operational leader of Lashkar-e-Taiba, a group sanctioned by both the United Nations and the United States that openly operates through proxies despite being banned in Pakistan, Al-Dakhil together with two “financial facilitators” was last month identified by the US State Department as a globally designated terrorist.
“Today’s action notifies the U.S. public and the international community that Abdul Rehman al-Dakhil has committed, or poses a significant risk of committing acts of terrorism,” the State Department said.
Hafez Saeed, the alleged mastermind of the 2008 attacks in Mumbai and leader of Lashkar-e-Taiba and its front organization, Jamaat-ud-Dawa, constitutes a similar litmus test as Khan seeks to demonstrate FATF compliance with agreed measures to counter money-laundering and terrorism finance.
The fact that Saeed, despite having been designated a global terrorist by the United Nations Security Council and the State Department, which put a $10 million bounty on his head, remains a free man and was able to field candidates in last month’s election figured prominently in FATF’s decision to put Pakistan on a grey list.
To demonstrate its sincerity, Pakistan in advance of the election passed the Anti-Terrorism Ordinance of 2018, which gave groups and individuals, including Saeed, designated by the UN as international terrorists the same status in Pakistan for the first time.
Pakistan also sought to curtail the ability of Saeed’s organizations’ to perform social and charity work, a pillar of their popularity, by confiscating ambulances operated by his charity, closing Jamaat-ud-Dawa offices, and handing control of its madrassas to provincial governments.
The fact that Saeed’s candidates and other militants did not bag National Assembly seats in last month’s election would suggest at first glance that it would be easier for the military and Khan to radically alter their approach to militancy.
That, however, ignores the significance of the militants capturing almost ten percent of the vote and helping deprive Khan’s main rival, ousted Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N), of votes in crucial electoral districts, according to an analysis of the Pakistan Election Commission’s results by constituency as well as a Gallup Pakistan survey.
It also fails to take into account the extra-parliamentary influence militants garner from their role as spoilers as well as their societal roots.
“In Pakistan, parliamentary seats alone do not a victory make. The religious political parties, particularly the newcomer extremist variety, may not have won big, but they have much to celebrate. Primarily, they can revel in their successful hijacking of this election’s political narratives. Rather than moderate their positions in order to compete, they managed to radicalise part of the mainstream political discourse,” said journalist Huma Yusuf.
Exploiting what governance expert Rashid Chaudhry dubbed “the politics of emotion,” Tehreek-i-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP), campaigning on a platform calling for strict implementation of Islamic law as well as Pakistan’s draconic blasphemy law, emerged from the election as Pakistan’s fifth largest party.
TLP, headed by Islamic scholar Khadim Hussain Rizvi, garnered four percent of the vote even if it only won two seats in Sindh’s provincial assembly and one in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. The Gallup survey said anecdotal evidence showed that TLP votes pushed PML-N to second position in many districts, “one reason for the loss of PML-N seats.”
Not surprisingly, Imran Khan has echoed TLP’s insistence on the principle of Khatam-i-Nabuwwat, or the finality of Mohammed’s prophethood, that pervades Pakistan’s body politic. “We are standing with Article 295c and will defend it,” Khan said referring to a clause in the constitution that mandates the death penalty for any “imputation, insinuation or innuendo” against the Prophet Muhammad.
Khan’s newly appointed human rights minister, Shireen Mazari, a controversial academic, who two decades ago advocated nuclear strikes against Indian population centres in the event of a war, condemned on her first day in office a Dutch government decision to support an exhibition of cartoons depicting the Prophet Mohammed by a member of parliament.
TLP supporters ransacked an Ahmadi mosque in the city of Faisalabad less than a week after Khan was sworn in, shooting and wounding six people. Supporters of TLP and Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) targeted an Ahmadi house of worship in Sialkot in May.
Khan’s backing of the blasphemy clause that has served as a ramming rod against minorities and a means to whip crowds into a frenzy and at times turn them into lynch mobs and inspired vigilante killings came as no surprise to Butt, the South Asia scholar, who noted shortly after the election that “Khan’s ideology and beliefs on a host of dimensions are indistinguishable from the religious hard-right.”
Yet, securing international support for inevitable structural reform of the Pakistani economy will have to involve breaking with militancy, implementing international standards in anti-money laundering and terrorism finance, and pushing concepts of pluralism and tolerance that are anathema to the religious hard-right. For Imran Khan to succeed, that seemingly will amount to having to square a circle.